Thinking Allowed - Including musings by Daan Spijer.

Book Reviews

February 28, 2011

Black Glass

Black Glass
Meg Mundell
Scribe 2011
ISBN: 9781921640933
288 pp

Black Glass is gripping, frightening, clever and thought-provoking.  It is written in an unusual style with an unusual structure and I resented every interruption that prevented me from reading it in one sitting.

Each chapter is divided in to shorter sections, each headed by what looks like a reference entry in a surveillance file, quoting location and the identified people and others who appear in that section.  The writing style shifts between third-person narrative, diary entries, intercepted telephone calls or emails, conversations where only one person is heard and the other’s words need to be inferred, ‘normal’ two-way conversations and interviews.  The vocabulary used by some people includes new words and contractions that are reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984, including words for the various areas in and around the city: Interzone, Subzone, Carnie District, undoc, Crimbust, ID-net, AirDrone, sky-pod.

While Black Glass is a story or, more accurately, a number of interwoven stories, it is also ‘situational’.  It is set in Melbourne (Australia) in a near future.  It is hard to know how near that future is, although there are some clues. All the technology is recognizable or imaginable from current technology and Neighbours is still showing new episodes on television.  However, the description of some of the precincts in and around the city made think it could be as much as twenty or thirty years away.

The central story is about two teenage sisters who are separated early on – the older thinks the younger is dead and the younger is searching for her sister.  The other story threads form a web along whose strands the sisters move.

Meg Mundell depicts a dark, forbidding Melbourne which is simultaneously recognizable and strange.  There is surveillance almost everywhere, manipulation of people in public spaces, corruption in public life, crime, low-life and more.  There are areas around the city which are inhabited by ‘undocs’ (people without identity papers), who live shadowy lives and can easily be manipulated by criminals to work for them.

It is possible that this slightly strange Melbourne already exists right under our noses – that we are merely unaware of it or choose to deny it.  We know from the media that there are ‘classes’ of people whose lives bear little resemblance to those of us who in live upper- or middle-class society and who have ‘honest’ jobs.  That the Melbourne depicted by Meg Mundell is perhaps not so different from the Melbourne I live in is a sobering thought.

The author is adept at creating atmosphere that the reader can feel and smell, taste and hear, as well as see clearly.  The whole work is filmic and would work well as a movie.  The characters are interesting and fleshed out to the extent that makes them real – even the minor characters.  I felt myself hoping that it would turn out well for the sisters.

Black Glass engaged me totally and left me wondering about the city I inhabit.  Although firmly set in Melbourne, it could as easily play out in any large city.  There are warnings for us all in the plots and subplots – we seem to be inexorably heading into the future that Meg Mundell paints so masterfully.

© 2011 Daan Spijer

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